Thursday, April 30, 2009

Faith in Uncertainty

Not knowing what comes next, and the uncertainty that goes along with that, seems to be one of our collective worst fears. In my line of work, I’ve come to notice that often, the greatest fear occurs between the time we know something’s not right but before the time we figure out what that something is. In this in-between time, fear often runs amuck and we’re tempted to lose our heads. On the other hand, when faced head on with some known challenge, humans have a remarkable ability to rise to the occasion. I’ve been amazed and encouraged again and again by fellow believers who face daunting obstacles with grace and perseverance.

This morning we find ourselves in a corporate time of not knowing what comes next. The headline in this morning’s San Angelo Times sums it up well, “Uncertainty Surrounds Swine Flue.” It’s no doubt the uncertainty that has so many people worried. We simply don’t have enough information to know what’s coming next with this virus. Will it fizzle out proving to be just another strain of the flu we have to contend with or will it become the full blown pandemic so many are fearing? We just don’t know. And the not knowing terrifies us. It allows our imaginations to run wild.

Paul once spoke to a church that was struggling with some unknowns, some “what ifs”. The Philippians were beginning to face some minor persecutions for their faith. They likely began asking themselves, “What if this gets out of hand? What if there’s a larger crackdown on our faith? What if . . .” Paul’s response in Philippians 4:6-9 gives them three practical ways to battle the fear of uncertainty.
  • First he tells them in to funnel their nervous energy into prayer. Rather than be anxious about stuff you can’t do anything about, be fervent in taking those worries to God in prayer. He says that as we do so, God’s peace, “which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
  • Next, after you’ve laid everything at Jesus’ feet, think about good things – offer thanksgiving to God for all you have and all he’s done for you. Focus on those things that are true, noble, lovely, admirable, etc. Essentially, don’t give worry a foothold in your heart. Stay filled up and encouraged by focusing upon the good things God has placed in your life.
  • And finally, keep doing what is right. Don’t use worry as an excuse to do evil. Don’t stop putting into practice the ways of Christ. Keeping loving one another, keep caring for the least of these, keep living like you know you are supposed to. In doing so, you are keeping close company to the God of peace.

Will doing these things keep bad things from happening to us? Of course not. Christians are not immune from the tragedies of this life. But following Paul’s advice will help us keep from losing our heads due to fear. It will also help assure that no matter what comes next, we will stay firmly in the presence of the One who can see us safely home no matter what evils come our way. It’s my prayer today that whatever burdens of fear you’re carrying around with you may be laid at our Savior’s feet and replaced with his peace that passes all understanding.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you – Philippians 4:6-9

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Praise completes our enjoyment

Last week a friend asked me if I had seen the video clip of Susan Boyle singing on the show Britain’s Got Talent. When I admitted that I had not, he went on to tell me how great it was, that I’d love it, and that he would send me the link. A couple of days later I clicked on the link he had sent and watched the video for myself and just as he said loved it. Now granted, I was a little tipped off as to what was going to happen so the surprise wasn’t as great as it was for others who had seen the video, but I found myself filled with joy nonetheless. And of course what happened next was almost inevitable. I walked over to Matt’s office and said, “Hey Matt, have you seen that clip of Susan Boyle singing on that show Britain’s Got Talent? No? I’ll send you the link. It’s great. You’ll love it.” Joy experienced almost always turns into joy shared.

Think about it, when’s the last time you experienced something that brought you joy? Did you keep it to yourself? I’m guessing you didn’t. It is almost mandatory, isn’t it, that good things must be praised? If you go to a good restaurant, you almost feel compelled to tell others about it. If you hear a good joke, you can’t wait for an occasion to share it with someone else. Praise is simply a part of life. Even non-religious people are full of praise. Whether it’s about singers, sports, or fine scenery, people like to praise things.

Thinking on this very same truth, C.S. Lewis noted in his book Reflection on the Psalms, “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you are for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with (the perfect hearer died a year ago).”

Praise completes our enjoyment. What a wonderful way to put it. If this is the case with temporal things such as last night’s supper and Friday night’s ballgame, how much more so with the God of all creation. Our enjoyment of God is only completed, or better yet, our participation in God’s joy only reaches its appointed consummation when praise him for who he is and for what he’s done. So, when’s the last time you completed your enjoyment of God by praising him?

Sing to the LORD, you saints of his; praise his holy name – Psalm 30:4

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Easter's over. Now, back to the real world?

I admit that almost ever year the stress of getting ready for Easter services keeps me from "feeling" very Easterly (is that a word?). Yet, almost every year, without fail, gathering with God's people helps me encounter the story of Christ's resurrection anew. I can’t tell you how uplifting it is for me to look out into the congregation and see faces alit as we proclaim to one another, “He is risen! He is risen, indeed!” This year the chorus of praise even extended to my Facebook account as status update after status update lifted praise to our Risen Lord – that is certainly a new twist on the praises of the saints. Of course, by now, those same status updates are back to normal, back to discussing the everyday stuff of our lives. One of my favorite writers, the late Richard John Neuhaus, writes of what often happens to us the week after Holy Week:

We contemplate for a time the meaning of Good Friday [and Easter], and then return to what is called the real world of work and shopping and commuter trains and homes. As we come out of a movie theater and shake our heads to clear our minds of another world where we lived for a time in suspended disbelief, as we reorient ourselves to reality, so we leave our contemplation – we leave the church building, we close the book – where for a time another reality seemed possible, believable, even real. But we tell ourselves, the real world is a world elsewhere. It is the world of deadlines to be met, of appointments to be kept, of taxes to be paid, of children to be educated.”[1]

Maybe paying your taxes this week brought you crashing back to the “real world.” Maybe an argument with your spouse. Maybe the routine of daily life has you shaking your head clear of what Sunday seemed like a possibility, the possibility of new life, but a possibility that now seems far away. What Neuhaus goes on to say, and what I believe the scriptures teach, is that the shaking off of an ill perceived reality is meant to go in the other direction. Christ’s death and resurrection is the event that constantly challenges our conception of where the real world resides, it is the moment that constantly reminds us to reevaluate what we consider to be temporal and what we know to be lasting. Easter calls us, so long as the slumber of this world persists, to keep shaking our heads clear of the deceptions of this world so that we may live alive, awake, and alert in the Kingdom of God’s light.

How does this happen? First, we must keep retelling the story, not just on Easter morning, but everyday of our lives. We must take time in prayer and meditation each day to not only remember the story of Christ’s resurrection, but to experience it anew. Then, we must live as if it’s true. We must embrace our crosses trusting there will be a resurrection. We must hold on to hope in the midst of great storms knowing the power of evil has been undone. We must keep on loving one another believing that love has won and will win the day. We must keep shaking our heads free of the lies of this world that dead things don’t live again and keep declaring to ourselves and one another, “He is risen! He is risen, indeed!”

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things – Colossians 3:1-2 - for a description of earthly things and things above see the rest of the chapter, especially 3:5-17.

[1] Richard John Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon (New York: Basic, 2000), 5.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Book Review: Doubting

I picked this book up for three reasons. First, I've been wanting to read something by McGrath for a while having caught snippets of his writings here and there. Second, as a pastor, one of the primary things people want to visit with me about are their doubts concerning the faith. And third, it was on sale - I love a good deal.

It didn't take too long to realize that this was primarily a book of apologetics (which initially had me a little worried. As I'll explain later, I'm not a huge fan of most apologetics these days). For those unfamiliar with the term, apologetics is that area of study devoted to the intellectual defense of the Christian faith. Christian apologists present the case for why intelligent, reasonable people believe the claims of Christianity.

Usually, I find Christian apologetics to be pretty frustrating. Often apologists spend too much time arguing for things I find unessential to the defense of our faith thus distracting us from more important discussions. For example, some apologists will spend all their time arguing against modern understandings of creation in favor of a strict interpretation of the first few chapters of Genesis and little time talking about whether or not the claims of Christ (the heart of the gospel) can actually change any one's life! Last time I checked, one's interpretation of Genesis 1-11 was not one of the litmus tests Jesus used for discipleship. Other times, apologist simply claim too much. They promise to be able to "prove" that the resurrection (or some other miraculous event) actually happened. I seldom find such arguments convincing - and I'm already believer! I doubt many unbelievers are convinced either.

Fortunately, McGrath takes neither of these directions. In fact, from the outset he makes clear the limits of Christian apologetics. He explains that what the Christian apologist sets out to do (or at least should set out to do) is to simply present the reasonableness of faith. That is, the Christian apologist shows that you don't have to leave your mind at the door of the church in order to worship the God of the Bible. Now, the Christian apologist should never claim to be able to "prove" the content of our faith. The very nature of the Christian proclamation prevents absolute proof (and absolute disproof, as well). But the Christian apologist can show why, given the limited information all of us must work with in this life, some of us choose belief.

I also was happy to read that McGrath views the role of the apologist not primarily as convincing the skeptic, but as assuring those who have chosen belief. I show my bias here. As a preacher of the gospel, I have always found that most people (if not all) come to faith in Christ through an encounter with the Spirit of God as they hear the word of God proclaimed, read it for themselves in the scriptures, or encounter that same gospel in the life of a believer. I've rarely heard of someone being argued into the kingdom by apologetics. Apologetics, however, do a good job of helping those who have come to faith in Christ, grow in that faith. That growing in the faith seems to be McGrath's primary purpose in this book. And for that, I found it to be a helpful, accessible volume. For those who struggle with doubts about the reliability of the scriptures or the truthfulness of the resurrection or the truthfulness of God, I think this book (alongside your own copy of the scriptures) would be a great place to start.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Treehouse/Swingset Weekend #4

I know we skipped weekend #3. It was sort of a bust. We did some work, but the little boy got pretty sick which derailed most of our efforts. Weekend #4 was a great success, though. Alyson's parents were in for her birthday so they helped quite a bit. The project is officially complete . . . unless we decide to add the AC unit (joking!).




Thursday, April 9, 2009

More blessed to give, more difficult to receive

Maundy Thursday begins with Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. What would I do if Jesus tried to wash my feet? Because I’ve read John 13, I’d probably let him. I’m not a total idiot. I can learn from other’s mistakes (plus, I hate to go barefoot so my feet stay pretty clean). What would I do if he tried to clean my toilet? Not just my toilet now – that one stays pretty clean thanks to Alyson. But what about my college apartment commode? I’d probably start to squirm. That one didn’t get cleaned with any regularity at all. I’d probably start trying to give the Lord an out, “Jesus, you really don’t have to do that. I’ll get to that later. Why don’t we step into the living room for some coffee.” When Jesus refused to take the out (he always refuses the out), I just might find myself in Peter’s place, “Jesus, I really can’t let you clean my toilet, ever.”

I could say I didn’t want Jesus humbled before me like that because I care about Jesus. That would probably be part of it. But the greater part would be that I would be embarrassed to have him take care of that for me at all. Cleaning the toilet is something I could have done. Something I should have done. Something he shouldn’t do for me. Something I don’t want him to do for me. It’s too intimate, too embarrassing, too close to home. While it may be more blessed to give than receive, in at least a few instances it is far more difficult to receive than to give. We’d rather have Jesus let us do something for him, instead of allowing him to do something for us that we think we can do for ourselves.

But like Peter, our thinking is wrong. To be a part of Christ, we must be willing to receive – not just the help we want from God but also all the help he wants to give: even when his help embarrasses us; even when it exposes the worst parts of us; even when it reveals the parts of us that we keep hidden from everybody else. Especially then. To be a part of Christ requires that we yield all of our lives to him, even the yucky parts. So today, on this Maundy Thursday, before you get to Christ’s commandment to love one another, first you have to be willing to take off your shoes and let him wash your feet. So, where in your life do you still need to receive the Savior’s love?

Peter said, “You shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me”- John 13:8.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Interruptions

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve had several different kinds of days. One day, I remember, was a day without interruptions. For one reason or another several staff members were out for the day. The phone hardly rang at all. I was able to get everything on my to-do list done plus some things that weren’t on the list at all. I thought to myself at the end of that day, “Wow, I got a lot of work done today.” On another day (the more common kind), I showed up at the office with a long to-do list only to have my plans derailed right from the start. Interruption after interruption prevented me from even getting to a single item on my list. I thought to myself at the end of that day, “Man, I didn’t get any work done today.”

And then I read the scriptures, specifically, the gospels. I noticed that almost never does a passage in one of the gospels begin, “And Jesus started off for such and such a place” only to be followed in the next verse by “And Jesus arrived in such and such a place.” Almost always, there is an interruption on the journey: a man stops to ask a question, a blind beggar shouts out from the sidewalk, a woman grabs the hem of his cloak. Jesus’ journey is constantly interrupted, and Jesus never seems to mind. He never brushes aside the interruption in order to get back to some more important work. In fact, his actions seem to indicate, the interruptions are the more important work.

More accurately, the people who have done the interrupting are the more important work. C. S. Lewis once noted, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals with whom we joke, work, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors. Or everlasting splendors.” Jesus was always paying attention to people, and so should we.

And that’s when it hits me, the miracles of Christ rarely happen as Jesus completes some holy to-do list. Far more often these invasions of the divine hand happen in the midst of what might be construed as a disruption of Jesus’ plans. And I wonder, how often do I miss God’s hand at work around me because I’m unwilling to be bothered by an interruption?

Jesus said to them, "My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work” – John 4:34.